A few days before January 26, 1992, the then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Murli Manohar Joshi announced a yatra culminating with unfurling of the tricolor at Lal Chowk on Republic Day.
Joshi’s announcement had come as a direct challenge to the hundreds of armed militants who used to freely roam the streets of Srinagar. Just two days before the R-Day they triggered a bomb blast at the office of the state police chief. Top officers, including the Director General of Police, sustained critical injuries just as they were holding a meeting on security preparations.
More drama was in the offing. The Jammu-Srinagar road was washed away in a landslide. Joshi had to make last minute changes to his travel plans and take a flight directly to the valley.
Around 10 miles west of Srinagar in Budgam’s Hakarmulla village, Mohammad Ashraf Aazad, a man in his early twenties, was following the developments keenly on BBC’s radio service. Ashraf couldn’t contain his excitement. He decided to visit Lal Chowk on R-Day to see everything with his own eyes."Kashmir had only six districts at the time. Modi ji and I visited almost all districts."
The entire valley was put under curfew. Lal Chowk was practically put under siege by the forces. Militants had formed groups and dispersed across the valley to carry out attacks.
Ashraf left his house for Lal Chowk early in the morning. He walked most of the distance. “Forces stopped me but I lied. I kept telling them that I have to go to a hospital,” says Ashraf.
Joshi had meanwhile made it to the square safely. He got out of a white Ambassador car where he was received by his partymen. Dressed in a long white gown and thick tan beanie, Joshi raised the flag on the pedestal of the clock tower, though he sustained injuries when the staff supporting the tricolour snapped.
Modi started understanding the situation and looked for people who could work for him, Ashraf says. Though militancy was turning bloodier by the day, Modi and his team continued working on expanding BJP’s base silently.
During this time, Ashraf says, Modi stayed at his home for three days. “Within a few days we had brought around a dozen people who began working for the BJP devotedly,” says Ashraf. “But no one would talk about it. There was fear of the gun.”
In 1998, the BJP came to the power at the Centre and Modi was appointed party in-charge for Jammu and Kashmir. The bond between Ashraf and Modi grew stronger. In 1999, during the Kargil war, Ashraf led a rally of BJP workers from Srinagar to Kargil on the request of Modi.
“Everyone is going to Kargil by air, but I want you to go by road,” Ashraf recalls Modi telling him. “I went with some other workers and met locals and the Army.”
By this time the party had enrolled the support of over a hundred local Muslims in the valley. Few among them, including Ashraf, also contested Assembly elections in 1996 on a BJP ticket. Though all the BJP candidates in Kashmir lost, in Jammu, the party’s tally rose from 2 seats in 1987 to 8 seats in 1996.
While the BJP was looking to expand its base in the country, it was difficult to find active members who would enrol to work fulltime for the party.
Sofi Yousuf, a police constable, had different ideas. He left his job to join the party in 1996. Yousuf’s joining the BJP was a small yet remarkable event considering young men of his age at the peak of militancy were crossing over to the other side of the LOC to pick up arms.
Yousuf says that it was the rigged polls of 1987 that gave birth to militancy in Kashmir and the problems were compounded when ‘government-sponsored militia’, the Ikhwanis, began committing atrocities. “Behind all of this was the Congress”—says Yousuf—“and this became the reason for me to join the BJP.”
It was strangely during periods of severe crisis that the BJP seemed to be making deepest inroads into the valley.
The counter-militancy operations were at their peak in Kashmir. Nobody was carrying the party flags around. But door-to-door conversations were being done in hushed tones.
The Congress-led alliance came to power in the Centre, PDP-Congress and National Conference-Congress coalition governments were formed. All through this BJP loyalists in the valley kept working silently.
“It was the time when we started working on ground steadily,” says Sofi Yousuf. “But there was nothing big about the party happening, apparently.”
The party sensed a great opportunity right after 2008 when the state government agreed to transfer 99 acres of land to Amarnath Yatra Board to set up shelters for pilgrims. The Amarnath Land Row created a rift between the state’s Muslim population in the valley and the Hindus based in Jammu. Six people died and hundreds were injured during the 61-day row, which had brought the state down on its knees.
“We started reaching out to the youth right then,” says Altaf Thakur, a BJP loyalist from 2002, and now party’s state spokesperson.
“A lot of young people were also sent for tours and meetings with our party high command in Delhi,” he says.
More candidates were fielded in the 2008 Assembly polls, almost from every seat. Though the party did not win a single seat, the fact that people were openly contesting on BJP tickets from some very hostile areas in the valley for the first time was another sign of the party’s growing confidence.
While pursuing engineering from a college in Chennai, Aijaz Hussain was influenced by ABVP. When he returned to Kashmir and started his own business, he met a BJP leader and joined the party, soon after, in 2006.
“Actually the BJP leader was a local friend and when he had to travel to any place for work he would ask me for my car. I used to drive him around and sometimes also participate in the meetings,” says Aijaz.
“I was impressed by their work and volunteered to join.”
He was taken into Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the party. In two years, he became state secretary of the youth wing.
“I worked hard for the party,” he says recalling the visit of Amit Shah in 2008. “Looking at the flags, banners and the hoardings Amit Shah Ji was so happy.
Aijaz is one of the prominent youth faces of the party who scouts for young recruits in the valley. In 2015, he was elevated to the post of state vice-president of the youth wing.
In July 2016, Aijaz was rewarded for his efforts and was inducted in BJP’s national youth team, first Kashmiri to reach that level in the party. He was made national vice-president."I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve in the motherland of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee."
“Had I been working in another party I would never have been elevated to such posts,” he says, “But in BJP, hard work is the only thing that matters, no matter what your religion is,” he adds.
Aijaz, 32, says he is fulfilling the dream of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, BJP’s predecessor in many ways.
Mookerjee was strongly opposed to Article 370, terming it as a ‘threat to national unity’ and would go on to say "Ek desh mein do vidhan, do pradhan aur do nishan nahi chalenge" (A single country can't have two constitutions, two prime ministers, and two national emblems).
“I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve in the motherland of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee,” says Aijaz, a tall man with broad shoulders. “The lotus in valley is blooming,” he declares.
Being a BJP worker in Kashmir has arguably been the toughest political assignment, and continues to be so, for any young neta.
Several party workers have been publicly identified, attacked, kidnapped, tortured and killed.
Sofi was campaigning for the 1999 parliamentary polls with Hyder Noorani, the BJP’s candidate from Anantnag constituency. Near Thajiwara, a village in Bijbehara town of south Kashmir, their cavalcade came under attack. An improvised explosive device (IED) went off. “Our cars were blown up. Hyder Noorani and three of our local workers died on the spot,” recalls, Sofi. “I was lying in a pool of blood. Militants from a nearby hillock were firing at us.”
Yousuf was wounded critically. He was rushed to the hospital. He was operated-upon and remained bedridden for the next six months. Though political workers from almost every party have been attacked in Kashmir, BJP workers were marked more often than others.
Ashraf Aazad’s house was burned down a number of times. A day before Eid-ul-Adha, Shabir Ahmad Bhat, youth president of BJP’s Pulwama district, was kidnapped. Next day his bullet-ridden body was found.
Shabir, who had joined the party in 2014, was kidnapped by militants but managed to escape. He was provided security cover by the state. Unfortunately, when militants came looking for him the second time, he was alone.
In November 2017, the 30-year-old BJP youth president of Shopian, Gowhar Hussain Bhat was kidnapped from his home by militants in the evening. His body was found later with a slit throat.
The Srinagar office of the BJP still bears marks of the last grenade attack. Window panes shattered in the blast are yet to be replaced.
“At our earlier office there had been three grenade attacks and at this office, grenades were hurled inside the compound twice,” says Altaf.
The office is protected by heavy security and barbed wires are laid along on the compound walls.
The party’s prospects changed dramatically after the 2014 Assembly elections and the subsequent tie-up with PDP. In power, the party claims to have gathered the support of thousands of youth in Kashmir.
“We gathered our cadre first and held meetings in Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar,” says Altaf Thakur. “These members were deputed back to their places for strengthening the party.”
“Thousands of people joined us,” says Sofi Yousuf. “It was for the first time that the number of our workers crossed the lakh mark.”
According to the records at the BJP’s Srinagar office, the party has over 3.5 lakh active workers in Kashmir today.
After the elections and the tie-up with PDP, half of the ministers in the coalition government were from the BJP. “Our ministers were directed to focus on Kashmir and in doing so they never overlooked our demands,” said a BJP worker, wishing anonymity.
“When I would visit the civil secretariat I was free to visit any minister not only those from BJP. If any officer wouldn’t do our work we used to go to our minister and ensure that he does it.”
A senior BJP leader in Kashmir claimed that one particular minister who did not pay heed to the party workers in the valley was replaced in no time.
“One of the ministers used to show an indifferent approach towards the Kashmiri party workers. We raised this issue with the party command. In the next ministerial reshuffle he was shown the door,” the leader claims with a big smile. “This is how parties strengthen their roots,” he adds.
It was during this government that BJP got its first legislator from Kashmir. Sofi Yousuf was elected to the upper House of the J&K legislative Assembly.
“It is my duty to look after the needy. When I sanction my funds for the developmental works of a particular place, people of that area start following me, so it is very natural they will vote for me,” Rashid Ahmad, a BJP worker from Anantnag says, “It is the development which matters.”
Only old people in other parties are shown any attention by their party high commands. The BJP doesn’t have that prejudice. So why should I work for other parties,” he says, when asked if people look down upon him because of his BJP affiliation.
A bureaucrat posted in the secretariat claims that most of the visits made to his office in the last three years were by BJP workers from the valley.
“Their workers got security, those who were feeling threatened also got government accommodation,” he says. “It was really hard to say no to them.”
“The BJP workers benefited as much as workers of other parties. Sometimes more, because they used to bring in the influence of top ministers,” said a Block Development Officer, who is responsible for allocating small contracts under different state and Centre sponsored schemes at the village level.
“When we were in power, we managed to open offices in all our districts,” Altaf Thakur said, “Now, our workers get respect in government offices as much as workers of other parties.”
He thanked the PDP and quoted Tariq Hameed Karra, a former PDP leader who recently joined the Congress. Karra had claimed that “the BJP-RSS have now entered in every single part of the valley, even in our bedrooms and the PDP was the unwitting facilitator.”
BJP’s growth in Kashmir hasn’t come without its own set of problems.
The BJP has been accused of engineering defections in other parties to create a new party with MLAs poached from NC, Congress and PDP to govern the state for the remaining two years. The state Assembly has still not been dissolved after the PDP-BJP breakup.
Party leader and former deputy Chief Minister Kavinder Gupta had told News18 in July that a new government may not be formed anytime soon. “Uncertainties are there, but we are working on something and people will get to know about it.” This had prompted opposition leader Omar Abdullah to level charges of horse-trading against the BJP."We are living in threat. The danger is not only from the militants but also from the people."
Bilal Ahmad Parray, who was party’s youth leader in Srinagar, announced his resignation in August. Parray, 27, says he wanted to become a “bridge” between people and the party.
“I persuaded dozens of youth to join the party. I was playing an active role and it was the first time I had joined any political party,” says Parray.
He says the main reason for his resignation was the increasing “domination of Kashmiri Pandits in the organisation.”
“The party leadership is giving more preference to the Kashmiri Pandits, while actually, we are working on the ground at greater risk,” he says.
He joined the BJP because he believed the party was against nepotism in politics and rewarded hard work.
“The problem is they are not giving much preference to Kashmiri Muslims, but seem interested in raking up the issue like Article 370 and Article 35A,” Parray told News18. “If the BJP has to expand its footprint in Kashmir, it will have to change its approach.”
Another leader from south Kashmir also quit the party recently because of security threat.
“We are living in threat. The danger is not only from the militants but also from the people,” he says. “People attacked my house a number of times. I might get protection but that is not enough.”
In the recent months, some of the BJP workers have also announced their resignation in local mosques publicly claiming to have nothing to do with the BJP.
In 2014, the PDP was touted as the party that could almost sweep the Assembly elections that year. The ruling NC was battling anti-incumbency, its prospect of doing well in the polls was further hampered by the public anger over the hanging of Afzal Guru and the civilian protests of 2010, which saw the deaths of around 120 people. The Congress was barely trying to stay alive in the contest. The PDP was set to win big time.
Come the counting day and people in the valley were staring at the most surprising of the results. The PDP won 28 seats in the 87-member Assembly but was well short of the half way mark. The BJP with 25 seats not only relegated the Congress to fourth place but also emerged as a kingmaker in a hung Assembly.
However, the most startling statistic from the 2014 results was the fact that the BJP had a larger vote share than any other party in the state.
With 23% votes it has polled slightly more than the PDP's (22.7%). The NC’s vote share had dipped to 20.8% and the Congress could manage just 18%.
What boosted the BJP's vote share was its impressive showing in the Hindu-dominated seats of the Jammu region. Of these 25 seats, it won 22 and garnered a vote share of a staggering 48.1% in the region, enough to make the party's state-wide share reach a healthy figure.
Surge In Jammu
The Modi wave, which had swept the rest of the country in 2014 travelled further north to Jammu and Kashmir a few months later.
The BJP won 25 of the 37 seats in the province in the state assembly election, a jump of 14 seats from the last Assembly elections that would later lead to the path of governance, which helped it emerge as the second largest party in the state.
Close to one-half of the people in the region voted for the BJP. This was nearly 100 per cent increase in the vote share compared to the previous election and about 200 per cent than that in 2008, a living testimony of how the saffron party made inroads into Jammu and Kashmir.
While the 2008 election saw a remarkable surge of 164 per cent in the BJP’s vote share, the 2014 polls further consolidated the party’s base in the Jammu district. Close to 4 lakh people the voted for BJP, an increase of more than 1.75 lakh from the previous polls.
The best performance of the BJP, however, was recorded in the border areas of Jammu province where it won an overwhelming 13 seats out of the 19. In the 2008 polls, it had won only 3 seats—Rajouri, Nagrota and Bishnah constituencies.
The BJP grabbed 54.15 per cent vote share in 2014, up from 20.6 per cent in the 2008 and 19.2 in 2002 state polls. In Hira Nagar, Chhamb, and Billawar constituencies, the party polled 69.2 per cent, 60.5 per cent and 58.3 per cent votes respectively.
That BJP won more than 30 per cent vote share in the Muslim-majority constituencies of Jammu province.
The party witnessed a huge 31.3 per cent increase in the vote share from 2008 polls at Doda—one of the seven Muslim-dominated constituencies in the province, where its candidate Shakti Raj won with 24,572 votes up from 2,756 votes in 2008.
Kashmir Valley, Forever Unchanged
The BJP went into the 2014 Assembly polls with the “Mission 44-plus”, marking its intention to get a majority in the 87-member House.
However, the party not only drew a blank in the Kashmir valley. All its 34 candidates lost their deposits.
For the BJP, this has been a tough frontier to breach. The region is a hotbed of militancy.
Such is the situation here that the saffron party didn’t even field a candidate in half the constituencies in 2014. Its vote share in some other constituencies like Karnah, Lolab and Uri, remained the same as compared to the 2008 election.
The BJP performed somewhat better in the south of Kashmir Valley. The party seemed to have lacked confidence in 2008 when it did not field candidates in one-third of the constituencies.
Six years later, they not only contested in all barring one but also garnered more than 1,500 votes in 11 constituencies.
All speculations about winning a seat in Kashmir were laid to rest after witnessing a huge turnout.
But the party performed considerably well in Devsar, Homshalibug, Pampore, Tral and Shopian.
The National Conference’s erstwhile voting bank also remained out of reach for the saffron party in 2014 polls. In constituencies like Chadoora, Khan Saheb and Eidgah, the BJP didn’t even field any candidates.
The votes garnered by the BJP candidates in Srinagar city were respectable in view of party’s first serious foray into the valley. While most of the Srinagar constituencies witnessed very low turnout, the BJP managed to raise their vote share substantially in some of the constituencies in the heart of Srinagar. Much of this was due to the postal votes which comprised a large number of migrant votes of Kashmiri Pandit community who live in other parts of the country.
Habba Kadal in Srinagar gave BJP the highest vote share in the valley where 22.2 of votes were polled for the saffron party.
Hopes were high and so were the stakes (if the party had to achieve the magical ‘Mission 44+’) when the BJP won the region’s sole parliamentary seat in May earlier that year. It represented a new wave in the region and the BJP expected victory in at least two Assembly seats, especially in the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh.
The party had invested enough in this area and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches before large gatherings in Leh and Kargil on August 12, 2014 had the expectations rolling. But an alarmed Congress’ refreshed focus on the region swept three of the four constituencies.
Since 2014, the party has offered an alternate political view in the valley but it is still perhaps a long way in becoming a potent political force in Kashmir. Till now, the BJP has won not a single seat in Kashmir, it couldn’t even reach anywhere near the finish line in any constituency.
The BJP is drawing blank in almost all elections, from municipal level polls to parliamentary elections, in a region where some workers have put in nearly 30 years of their lives for the party.
However, after the coalition with the PDP, the Bharatiya Janata Party is hopeful. “Our focus for the next elections will be mainly at Jammu but in Kashmir, we are strengthening eight constituencies,” Sofi Yousuf told News18.
In the recently held Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) polls in Leh, the BJP suffered an embarrassing loss, securing just one seat. Only four years ago, in 2014 general polls, the party had won the parliamentary seat for the first time.
“We may not win seats in next elections in Kashmir but we have been able to lift curtain,” says Sofi.
The National Conference has boycotted the panchayat elections and threatened to stay away from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls if the issue of Article 35A is not resolved. The PDP also followed suit and decided to boycott the panchayat polls."We may not win seats in next elections in Kashmir but we have been able to lift that curtain."
Yet again, in the face of a political crisis, when voter turnouts are plummeting, and regional parties are openly talking of boycotting, the BJP is again sensing an opportunity.
In the valley, BJP leaders are talking about using this moment to further spread the party’s message of development. An election boycott by others doesn’t perturb the BJP.
The upcoming general elections in 2019 will perhaps be the greatest test of the party’s strength in the region.